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Exploring the global environmental impacts of consumption

By Maddie Harris, Ecosystem Analyst

In our latest blog, Maddie Harris, Ecosystem Analyst, talks about recent work on an experimental statistic and accompanying interactive dashboard, which explore the environmental impacts of consumption.

Imagine the size of a football pitch. In 2018, the UK’s consumption of crops, timber and cattle was linked to tropical deforestation of an area equivalent to just over 50,000 of these. That’s 138 football pitches each day, or almost six every hour!

How do we know this? Through a project funded by Defra, we (JNCC), working with the Stockholm Environment Institute (University of York) have just released new data for our interactive dashboard and experimental statistic, which provide estimates on the environmental impacts associated with a country’s consumption. The dashboard and statistic explore not only deforestation, but a variety of impact types, such as biodiversity loss, water use and cropland area. As well as data for the UK, information is available for a range of other consumer countries.

This work has led to an expert workshop on the monitoring framework for the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework identifying it as a potential headline indicator for CoP15 to consider adopting. It is one indicator of only 23 indicators which the workshop gave a score of ‘1’ or ‘2’ out of over a possible 250 indicators.

The dashboard tool helps you understand the impacts of different consumer choices, by letting you break down the data to explore which commodities are causing what impact, and where these impacts are taking place. For example, if you’re interested in understanding the impacts of your water footprint, you can use the dashboard to see the commodities associated with the highest scarcity-weighted water use values linked to UK consumption. With cotton coming out near the top of the list, you could then dig a bit deeper and select cotton in the menu, to find out where in the world the impacts linked to UK consumption of cotton are felt most significantly.

Feel free to play with the data yourself – which impacts and commodities are you interested in? What can you find out?

Whilst interesting to individual consumers, the key value of this work is the potential to use it at a national scale. The data allows users to identify commodities and producer countries where the greatest impacts related to the UK’s (or another country’s) consumption are being felt. This information can be used to inform policies and delivery mechanisms in a range of areas and will help us identify where to focus action for supply and demand side measures. Being able to unpick the information available through the dashboard is an exciting step towards improving the sustainability of a country’s national consumption.

Getting to the point of releasing the statistic and dashboard for the first time last year was quite a journey. JNCC first started working on understanding the impacts of consumption over a decade ago. This latest phase has involved three years’ worth of work spread across three project phases, to get from the point of being initially asked if it would be possible to produce a national indicator in this area, to publishing the work in October 2021. We have now released our first update to the data (adding 2018 to the time series), which we plan to do annually going forwards. During this time, we have battled with the paucity and complexity of data, and consulted widely on the extensive range of use cases this work could have, to ensure it meets requirements to be as useful as possible to as many users as possible.

We couldn’t have got to where we are today without the support of a huge number of hardworking organisations and individuals. The work was commissioned and funded by Defra, who have been there every step of the way through the process: sitting on steering groups, publicising the work across Government and reviewing outputs to ensure they meet the strict standards required by the Code of Practice for Statistics. Analyses were undertaken by the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, whose extensive knowledge and tireless dedication to improving understanding of consumption-based impacts have made them a real pleasure to work with. We would also like to thank the Trade Hub and Trase, who provided additional support to the dashboard, and our stakeholder group, which includes representatives from 18 different organisations across Government, industry and NGOs, who provided invaluable input to the indicator scope and dashboard design through a series of interactive workshops.

We’re also planning to continue to improve the tool in future. Given our high-tech economy and the increase in demand for materials such as rare earth metals for phones, electric vehicles and other products, expanding the commodity scope to cover metals and mining will be a priority to investigate going forwards. Making use of subnational data, where available, could also help to increase the resolution of the indicator. And adding information on impacts with relevance to established production systems, such as nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, would complement the existing estimates.

Looking at the data, it’s evident that the UK has come a long way in reducing its consumption-based impacts. Back in 2005, when the data behind the indicator started, UK consumption was responsible for not six football fields worth of tropical global deforestation every hour, but almost 12. We have a long way still to go to get this figure down to zero, but the indicator and dashboard can be used to help inform our understanding of how this could be achieved.

We’re really interested in getting feedback on the statistic, both in terms of potential improvements, and hearing about how you have been using it, or might be able to use it. Please get in touch with us at UKGlobalImpacts@jncc.gov.uk and let us know what you think!

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